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Expanded vets benefits clears early Senate hurdle, faces GOP roadblocks over cost concerns

FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2012 file photo, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. The veterans bill vote could put Senate Republicans in the uncomfortable position of saying no to a politically powerful constituency during an election year. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the bill’s author and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, has gained the endorsement of myriad veterans groups to generate momentum for his bill, which the panel says would cost $21 billion over 10 years. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

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FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2012 file photo, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. The veterans bill vote could put Senate Republicans in the uncomfortable position of saying no to a politically powerful constituency during an election year. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the bill’s author and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, has gained the endorsement of myriad veterans groups to generate momentum for his bill, which the panel says would cost $21 billion over 10 years. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON - A sprawling Democratic bill expanding health, education and other benefits for veterans easily cleared an early Senate hurdle on Tuesday. But the election-year measure still faces an uncertain fate as Republicans battle to make it smaller and find ways to pay for it.

By a 99-0 vote, senators agreed to begin debating the legislation, which sponsor Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, says would cost $21 billion over the coming decade. That opened the door to what is likely to be days of GOP efforts to pare it down and lessen its impact on budget deficits.

By the time the Senate reaches a final showdown vote, the bill could confront GOP lawmakers with an uncomfortable campaign-season test over curbing spending for the nation's 22 million veterans and their families. Most veterans groups support the legislation, and the voting bloc they represent is a potent one that both parties usually try to avoid offending.

Some Republicans consider Sanders' legislation an election-year ploy aimed at forcing them to take embarrassing votes. They say the measure is too expensive and would provide so many new benefits that it would clog up a system already overburdened with veterans seeking health care and other benefits.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, top Republican on the Veterans panel, said it was irresponsible "to talk about dumping more people on a broken system, to talk about asking those who've already waited so long to wait longer because of our actions."

But Sanders, I-Vt., said, "We have the moral obligation to do the very best we can for veterans."

Republicans were demanding a chance to offer amendments — particularly a GOP substitute Burr said was less costly and would be paid for with savings culled from veterans' programs. Burr's proposal also included language imposing new sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program, which President Barack Obama has urged Democrats to resist.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has blocked amendments on some bills, concerned that GOP senators would use them to embarrass Democrats on politically divisive issues like rolling back Obama's health care overhaul.

The conservative group Heritage Action urged senators to oppose Sanders' bill, saying its failure to revamp the VA results in "harming both veterans truly in need of assistance and taxpayers in the process."

The House has approved some of the benefit improvements in Sanders' bill, but Republicans who run that chamber say they oppose parts of the Senate bill and want better ways of financing it.

Sanders' bill would be paid for mostly with money left unspent from the end of U.S. fighting in Iraq and the phase-out of American forces in Afghanistan. Republicans consider that phoney savings since those wars were already winding down and there were no real plans to spend that money on fighting.

Sanders' bill would let many uninsured veterans without service-connected injuries get coverage from the VA health care system.

The Democratic bill would also make it easier for veterans to qualify for in-state tuition at public universities. Jobless programs would be extended and states would be pressured to make it easier for veterans to get truck driver's and other licenses.

The measure would provide fertility treatment and coverage of adoption costs for veterans whose infertility sprang from service-related injuries. It would also expand VA counselling and treatment for sexual assault victims and increase the agency's chiropractic care, dentistry coverage and alternative medicine, such as using yoga to treat stress.

A two-year program would pay for fitness centre memberships for overweight veterans who live more than 15 minutes from a VA fitness facility.

The bill also erased a 1 per cent cut in annual inflation increases for veterans who retire early from the military that Congress enacted late last year. Legislation signed this month by Obama ended that cut for most early retirees, so Sanders now wants to end it for those who joined the military beginning this year.

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